Is Remote Work Overrated?
As the pandemic drags on, some question the future of remote work. They’re missing the big picture.
For years, inclusion advocates like myself have called for flexibility and remote work options. Since the pandemic, it looked like the remote revolution we called for was finally materializing: nearly half of all US workers are working from home. Some technology companies extended their remote work arrangements into 2021—and a few are extending indefinitely.
But just when it looked like flexible and remote work was becoming a potentially permanent shift, we’re also beginning to see the beginnings of a backlash. The author of an upcoming book on the future of work argues that most people should work in an office or near other people. Some CEOs and business leaders are reporting that remote work is “not so great after all” and that they will be going back to the office. “We tried it,” one exec told The Wall Street Journal. “It’s just not the same. You cannot get the same quality of work.”
But evidence shows that this productivity decline is only perception, and not reality.
As the Covid-19 pandemic drags on, it’s not surprising that there is some burnout from being cooped up in our homes. I have worked 100% remotely for over seven years and love it. I save time and money without a commute, I can manage my work-life needs effectively, and I am more productive at home. But I must admit that even I miss the option to see my colleagues in person.
Catalyst has long had a culture that allows for flexibility, with nearly half of our employees working remotely full-time pre-pandemic, but we have usually held all-staff, in-person gatherings at least one or two times a year. These optional events have been important in helping us stay connected and build a foundation of empathy and inclusion, which promotes collaboration and innovation.
Still, I would not want to be forced to return to the office, and some of my colleagues would not want to be forced to work from home as we emerge post-Covid. The point is: The problem isn’t remote work; it’s losing our ability to choose when, where, and how to work. Forced choices rarely build inclusion at work.
The pandemic has reduced our choices–but the answer isn’t returning to an in-person culture when the pandemic ends. Catalyst research shows that flexible and remote work can expand your talent pool, allow for improved work-life effectiveness, drive empowering work environments for people of color, and provide business continuity during times of disruption. In fact, during the pandemic, Catalyst staffers have figured out ways to maintain our connections virtually, and we’ve even onboarded new staff.
If you want to build a truly inclusive culture, you need to let people decide and not dictate where and when to work when your physical office space fully opens.
Three key benefits of remote work and flexibility to keep in mind:
- If you’ve invested in developing an infrastructure, processes, and culture to support remote work, you’ll be able to weather future disruptions and become more innovative.
- Workplace flexibility is a key component of an inclusive workplace.
- Flexibility also helps in retaining top talent—particularly women.
Even if some colleagues elect to return to a physical office, this remote work infrastructure will enable you to expand your talent pool to new locations, build diverse teams, and stay productive—especially if there is a natural disaster or some other disruption. If you did great work in a time of uncertainty, you can continue to use those tools and processes.
Managers have the ability to create environments in which people feel empowered, are treated fairly, and can flourish at work. Giving your team members ownership in deciding how, where, and when to get their work done—and supporting them while still holding them accountable—can drive the experience of inclusion, as our research shows.
When people can work in ways that best support their work-life effectiveness, it can help boost productivity and reduce turnover. Flexible work policies are important for attracting and retaining talent now and into the future of work. Giving people the choice in where they work—whether in the office, a blend of remote and in the office, or 100% remote is true flexibility.
The bottom line: Some employees may be thrilled to return to the office. Others may prefer to remain remote. Inclusive employers will make sure it is a choice, not a command.
Senior Director, Women and the Future of Work
Lauren Pasquarella Daley, PhD, joined Catalyst in June 2013 as part of the Information Center and now works in the Development Department, leading the Women and the Future of Work strategic initiative for Catalyst. In this role, Lauren leads our efforts across multiple departments, developing the key priority areas which…